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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 20:56   #1
Capercaillie71
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Islay, Queen of the Hebrides, 9-13 February 2012

I've just returned from a very enjoyable long weekend on Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. I'd been once before many years ago in the summer, but had always wanted to visit during the winter months when the island supports so many wintering wildfowl. It was a big family trip, with 9 of us in total aged from 1 to 73. I was the only real birder in the group, but still managed some decent birding.

To avoid an early start, we had driven down to Argyll the night before the ferry and stayed at Ardfern, about an hour north of the ferry terminal at Kennacraig. Leaving Ardfern the following morning there were two Iceland Gulls in fields at the edge of the village and two more further south near Kilmartin. The ferry crossing was quite misty but calm and the first part of the journey down West Loch Tarbert was filled with Great Northern Divers and more distant Red Throated Divers, as well as a couple of Black Guillemots (one in winter plumage and one in summer plumage).

The rest of the ferry journey was fairly devoid of birds, but soon after arriving at Port Askaig on Islay, we passed the first few flocks of the 40,000 Greenland Barnacle Geese that spend the winter on the island. Most of the rest of the day was spent settling into our holiday house, part of the Bowmore distillery complex. The accomodation was very good, centrally located and quite good value for a large group (not much more than £20 per person per night). A bottle of 12 year old Bowmore and a complementary tour of the distillery were also included! A shared garden at the back of the house led down to the shore of Loch Indaal, where there was a good view of the water and the birds on it. A Great Northern Diver was usually quite close by and more distantly were rafts of Common Scoter, Scaup and a couple of Slavonian Grebes.
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 21:03   #2
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Our first full day on the island, Friday, was fairly dreich. Thick cloud lay low over the island and it drizzled on and off all day. We took a drive around Loch Indaal towards Port Charlotte, once again passing many Barnacle Geese. At Blackrock I spotted a small group of three Canadian Pale-bellied Brent Geese feeding on the shore and then four more on the sea a little further along at Uiskentuie. There was also a Glaucous Gull on the beach here.

A drive down to Portnahaven and up the west side of the island to Kilchiaran produced few birds, but between Kilchiaran and Port Charlotte we came across our first flock of Greenland Whitefronted Geese - about 50 with a similar number of Greylags and Barnacles.
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Last edited by Capercaillie71 : Tuesday 14th February 2012 at 21:56.
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 21:24   #3
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After lunch I took most of the family to Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve. There were quite a few Barnacle and Whitefronted geese here but no more so than anywhere else on the island at this time of day. The hide overlooks a flooded area that was full of hundreds of ducks - mostly Teal, Wigeon and Mallard but also Pintail, Shoveler and a small number of Gadwall - the latter only seen in flight after some of the reserve staff flushed most of the ducks. My wife, who is not really a birder at all, impressed by picking out and identifying a ringtail Hen Harrier quartering over the back of the pools.

We then went on to Kilchoman and the dunes at Machir bay where we quickly picked up a distant flock of about 30 Chough which eventually gave closer views though in the rapidly gathering gloom and in a now blustery breeze.
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 21:42   #4
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Saturday morning got off to a good start with prolonged views of a fishing Otter off Bowmore pier from the bottom of the garden. However, it was still dull and drizzly so we took advantage of our free distillery tour - well worth it as Bowmore is one of only six distilleries in Scotland that still malts its own barley.

After lunch I headed off on my own to have a look at waders around Loch Indaal. The tide was rather far out and so were the birds although there were good numbers of bar-tailed godwits and quite a few Dunlins and Curlews. I then noticed that the sun was breaking through towards Loch Gruinart and decided to head up there to photograph geese in better light. At Gruinart farm, just past the hide car park I screeched to a halt as a Golden Eagle powered across the road above me, giving fantastic views.

I headed home and picked up my wife and daughter before returning to Ardnave Loch for a walk in the dunes, where there were more Choughs, mixed in with Jackdaws and Rooks
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 21:45   #5
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Some more shots of the eagle and the visit to Ardnave
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 21:51   #6
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Sunday, the last full day of the trip, was quieter with a trip to the south end of the island and a family walk on Kintra beach, where my wife and I had camped on our last visit. There was an Iceland Gull on the beach, and a grumpy farmer nearby.

Back at Bowmore there were 21 Pale-bellied Brent Geese in the loch by the distillery and I found a single Purple Sandpiper among the Turnstones on the shore.
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 21:54   #7
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We got the first ferry back on Monday, with more divers in West Loch Tarbert, including half a dozen red-throated just off the ferry terminal at Kennacraig. The return journey home was uneventful with the only bird of interest being a Red Kite near Crieff.

All in all a very enjoyable trip and undoubtedly some of the best winter birdwatching in Scotland for both the variety of species and the spectacle of so many Barnacle Geese.
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 21:54   #8
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Great stuff Paul - glad you had such an enjoyable visit.
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 22:02   #9
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A great trip you had Paul, and you came away with some lovely pictures too.

I think your wife had been doing some homework before you went

D
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 22:06   #10
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Great report. How would you compare Islay to Mull Paul?

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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 22:47   #11
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Thanks for the comments.

Quote:
Originally Posted by ClarkWGriswold View Post
How would you compare Islay to Mull Paul?
Mull is a more rugged and mountainous island, although I really like the wide open landscapes and sweeping views that you get on Islay (if it isn't too cloudy!). For birds, Islay is surely better in the winter (although I've never been to Mull in winter) and probably summer too. Eagles are the big draw on Mull, but as I found, Golden eagles can be just as good on Islay with a bit of luck. White-tailed eagles are less reliable on Islay (I'm not aware that they breed there yet), but Corncrakes and Choughs are ample compensation.

Islay is also a smaller island than Mull and consequently much easier to get around. With a central location like Bowmore, nowhere seemed much more than half an hour away, whereas it always seems to take hours to get round Mull.
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 23:04   #12
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Thanks for the comparison Paul. I'm off to Mull for a week in May and hadn't previously considered Islay.

Cheers,

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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 23:15   #13
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Here's a species list for the trip - it probably could have been longer if I'd spent any time looking for species that I can see easily at home. I forgot to mention that the flocks of Rock Doves on Islay are about as pure as they get - no domesticated muck.

Common Pheasant
Greylag Goose
Greenland White-fronted Goose
Brent Goose
Barnacle Goose
Mute Swan
Whooper Swan
Shelduck
Gadwall
Wigeon
Mallard
Shoveler
Pintail
Teal
Scaup
Eider
Common Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Diver
Great Northern Diver
Slavonian Grebe
Grey Heron
Shag
Cormorant
Hen Harrier
Sparrowhawk
Buzzard
Golden Eagle
Merlin
Oystercatcher
Lapwing
Common Snipe
Bar-tailed Godwit
Curlew
Redshank
Turnstone
Knot
Purple Sandpiper
Dunlin
Kittiwake
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Iceland Gull
Herring Gull
Guillemot
Black Guillemot
Rock Dove
Collared Dove
Chough
Jackdaw
Rook
Hooded Crow
Raven
Great Tit
Wren
Starling
Blackbird
Fieldfare
Song Thrush
Robin
House Sparrow
Dunnock
Pied Wagtail
Rock Pipit
Chaffinch
Reed Bunting
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Old Tuesday 14th February 2012, 23:20   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ClarkWGriswold View Post
Thanks for the comparison Paul. I'm off to Mull for a week in May and hadn't previously considered Islay.
You'll enjoy Mull - there is less to choose between the islands at that time of year than in the winter - Mull has the WT eagles and Islay has the Choughs. Both have Corncrakes and Golden Eagles.
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Old Wednesday 15th February 2012, 07:05   #15
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Good report, brings back many memories of a great birding island.

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Old Wednesday 15th February 2012, 22:14   #16
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Great report Paul.You forgot to mention,how you got on with the Bowmore liquid gold !!!!
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Old Wednesday 15th February 2012, 22:28   #17
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Quote:
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Great report Paul.You forgot to mention,how you got on with the Bowmore liquid gold !!!!
Well, the free bottle didn't last all the way through the weekend, and I think some of our party bought a bottle or two to take home!
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